Even as the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered restaurants, bars and beaches, many golf courses have managed to stay open with all sorts of precautions in place to promote social distancing, from sanitizing carts to removing rakes from bunkers.
In California, golf courses are not included on a list of essential services allowed to remain open, but they are also not on a closure list provided by the state either. This has led to some confusion as to whether they can continue to operate.
The hope is that golf can provide a safe outlet for the stir crazy, some fresh air and exercise, perhaps even a dose of normalcy.
But like so much else, the industry is in a day-to-day state of uncertainty.
Consider Poppy Hills on the Monterey Peninsula, once part of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am rotation on the PGA Tour. It announced March 16 it was closing until April 8 shelter-in-place orders were issued in six Bay Area counties. Then, it reopened on Saturday with social distancing guidelines. One day later, it was temporarily closed again.
Others remain open in California and across the country, including some courses in the Central Valley.
“It’s definitely a needed distraction, especially with nothing else on at home,” said Mark Laliberte, who was playing at Highland Creek Golf Club in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I’m a father of three daughters, and my wife and my daughters and I love to watch sports. It’s crazy that there is nothing on.”
California Order: Stay Home Except for Essential Needs
On March 19th, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued his statewide “stay at home” order. Soon after, the state provided a list of essential services that could remain open including, gas stations, pharmacies, grocery stores, farmers markets, food banks, convenience stores, take-out and delivery restaurants, banks, laundromats, and law enforcement and offices that provide government programs and services.
Golf courses are not included as essential services, but they are also not on a closure list provided by the state, which has led to some confusion as to whether they can continue to operate.
Fresno Area Golf Courses Are a Mixed Bag
That uncertainty is evident locally, based on the actions of course operators in the Fresno area.
Sunnyside Country Club is allowing its members to play their course, but guests are not permitted. The on-site restaurant is offering takeout orders only.
Madera Municipal Golf Course, owned by the city of Madera, is still open. The course is operating from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m.
An employee who answered the phone at Kings River Golf & Country Club said members are allowed to walk the course and play golf – but no guests allowed. A Facebook post from March 20 states that business operations are closed until further notice.
Fresno’s city-owned Riverside Golf Course is closed.
Calls to the Bluff Pointe Golf Course and Learning Center are answered by a voice message stating the facility is closed until at least April 1st.
Golfers Can Leave Flagsticks in the Holes, Untouched
For courses that remain open, it fairly easy for golfers to keep their distance on the fairway. But greens and especially tee boxes can become more crowded — and golf is popular among age groups most vulnerable to the virus. Can it really be safe?
“I do think that golf is a relatively easy sport to socially distance while playing,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. His work focuses on emerging infectious disease, pandemic preparedness and biosecurity.
“I do think that social distancing is important but I also think that some activities can be modified to limit exposure,” he said in an email.
Golfers can leave flagsticks in the holes, untouched. Grounds crews at some courses have installed the cups upside down, so the ball doesn’t fall in the hole and people don’t have to reach inside.
Pinehurst Resort, including the famous No. 2 course, put a 2-inch diameter piece of PVC in the hole so the ball comes to rest level with the turf — easy to retrieve. The USGA last week said when cups are adjusted, a temporary measure allows for scores to be posted for handicap purposes even if players don’t actually make the putts.
“Honestly, and I’m biased as you know, but if you think of anything else you could do right now, golf is social distancing day to day,” said Troy Andrew, executive director of the Washington Golf Association. “None of the general public is good enough to hit it within six feet of each other.”
Los Angeles Ordered Closure of Public Golf Courses
Carts can be limited to one player at a time, and players can be allowed to walk the course without one. Clubhouses and golf shops can have restricted access or be closed entirely. Players can prepay for their rounds online.
Wes Stenscher, 34, of Bethesda, Maryland, played early in the morning at Bowie Golf Club last week with a business partner.
“Kind of most surprisingly is most of the people that were out there were older people, which are at the highest risk right now, and I was surprised to see so many older people out there,” he said.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
Charlene Richardson of Pasadena, California, played the nine-hole Eaton Canyon course in nearby Altadena last week. Ball washers were covered in plastic to prevent use and she didn’t pull the flagstick on any hole.
“When I had to reach in the hole to get my ball, I was like, ‘Hmm,'” she said.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti later announced the closure of public golf courses. This week, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a statewide stay-at-home order, with exemptions for outdoor exercise.
“Whatever the orders are, we’ll certainly abide by them and try and help,” Kendall said. “Maybe if it’s helpful to not have this tease people into going out when they would have stayed home otherwise, then maybe we need to do that.”
‘Just Trying to Do Something’
It was not clear if Whitmer’s order applies to golf courses.
“We recognize the difficult task governors have in keeping the economy going and keeping citizens safe,” Greg McLaughlin, head of the World Golf Foundation, said recently. “The distinction we’re trying to make is the unique nature of the golf course. The clubhouse, restaurant, that’s one operation. The fields of play, which typically represent outdoor, open space, should be treated differently.”
Bruce Mohler, the course manager at Jacksonville Beach Golf Club in Florida, was in his office last week composing an email to city parks officials on why the course should remain open. The course was sanitizing carts, and cups were inserted upside-down.
“We had 273 rounds on Wednesday. For 18 holes, that’s 4,914 potential touches we’re eliminating by not having to get your ball out of the cup,” he said.
Mohler had about 10 decorative square cement pieces to build a walkway to a window next to the cashier, so players could pay without having to enter the clubhouse. The public course, recently renovated, was booked all week.
Sean Poggi, who works in commercial real estate, was in a cart with Dino Delkic, waiting to tee off.
“What brings us out?” he said. “Just trying to do something.”
GV Wire contributed to this report.